ELGOOD’S Coolship #1 is in town this week, and, no, that’s not the name of the official tour bus for ParliamentFunkadelic.
It’s a sour ale that has been drawing lots of interest since its release earlier this year as the first spontaneously fermented commercial beer made in England in perhaps 100 years or more.
I’ll be pouring it at happy hour tomorrow at Victoria Freehouse (10 S. Front St., Old City) as Philly Beer Week heads into its final stretch. The beer’s backstory is one of those wondrous sets of circumstances that crop up with surprising regularity in the beer world, so I’ll share it here.
Elgood & Sons Brewery traces its history along the banks of the River Nene in the Cambridgeshire market town of Wisbech to 1795. The Georgian-style structure is old, but certainly not ancient by European standards.
Today it’s run by Nigel Elgood, his wife, Anne, and their three daughters.
Like much of England’s East Anglia region around them, the brewery has been hit by hard economic times. Some of its tied-house (brewery-owned) pubs have closed. Sales of cask beer are down. Regional conglomerates and newfangled micros are stiff competition, and production at the old place is down to less than a third of its full capacity.
So when Bob Leggett went nosing around the place about two years ago, it was with the sense that the town’s brewing heritage was fading in front of his eyes. “You could just see their business was struggling,” he said.
Leggett is president of Artisanal Imports, a specialty importer based in Austin, Texas, well-known for its portfolio of niche Belgians and Brits. And, like many in the beer business, he has a fondness for traipsing around old breweries.
Elgood’s brewmaster gladly showed Leggett the works, leading him up and down stairs, showing off the equipment.
When they got to the top floor, a large room with louvered walls, Leggett caught sight of two large, shallow copper pans. He said it was a completely unexpected find and – at least in a traditional English brewery – entirely out of place.
But there was no mistaking the contraption. It was a coolship.
It’s a simple device typically filled with steaming wort, the freshly brewed malt-and-hops liquid that must be cooled before adding yeast to begin fermentation. The louvered walls bring in the evening chill, the large surface area speeds cooling.
With refrigeration, coolships have become relics of the past. Until some American craft brewers – notably Maine’s Allagash Brewing – installed their own coolships, you’d see them only in a traditional lambic brewery in Belgium, where brewers allow the wort to sit overnight to be inoculated with natural wild yeast and bacteria.
But in England? Never.
“They’d stopped using it years ago for obvious reasons,” Leggett said. Exposed to ambient yeast strains of uncertain origin, beer can take on funky, often sour flavors. Uncontrolled, spontaneous fermentation is the enemy of good English ale.
After his tour, Leggett sat down with the three sisters and suggested that it might be time to refloat their coolship. American beer drinkers were beginning to embrace sour beer, he told them, and a spontaneously fermented ale “would be completely unique to British brewing.”
“They were immediately interested,” said Leggett, so he put them in touch with a Belgian brewing consultant who would teach them the ropes.
“We weren’t interested in duplicating what the Belgians already do,” he continued. “Instead, we started with a traditional British ale, to see what the coolship would do.
“I’d call it a nice, soft, sour beer with a moderate level of acidity. It’s not as astringent as a traditional gueuze.”
Only about 200 small kegs of Elgood’s Coolship #1 were brewed and most have been sent to America. But a few were left behind, and when word of the unusual brew spread in England, some bars in London started calling.
They wanted this new beer from the 220-year-old brewery.
A film crew from the BBC caught wind and is producing a documentary about the brewery.
A second coolship batch – this one a traditional English stout – is already aging in barrels.
Like I said, it’s a nice, feel-good backstory: An American visitor reintroduces an English brewery to a nearly lost style of beer-making.
“I’m very hesitant to take credit for the whole thing,” Leggett told me. The brewery, he said, “was relatively desperate to find a way to make themselves economically viable, so they deserve all the credit for taking the chance.”
We’ll tap the keg at 6 p.m. tomorrow at Victoria Freehouse. If sour beer isn’t your thing, no worries. There will be plenty of other, traditional British ales, including a cask of Robinson’s Trooper, the extra special bitter that takes its name from the Iron Maiden song inspired by the Charge of the Light Brigade.
Admission is free; pay as you go.